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Fannie Lou Hamer was the youngest of 20 children, who became sharecroppers like their parents. Her grandparents had been slaves. Hamer's mother fashioned a black doll for her when she was young, so that she would develop self-confidence and pride despite her poor surroundings. Her mother also taught her spiritual strength, including the power of song.
In 1961 she was sterilized without her knowledge, as part of Mississippi's systematic effort to reduce the poor black population. Soon after, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee visited Hamer's church; she was a 44-year-old Delta field hand who had become a plantation time-keeper. In 1962, Hamer was arrested when she tried to register to vote. According to her biographer, the costs of Hamer's initial activism were severe. She was evicted, jailed, and beaten, suffering kidney damage and partial blindness.
As SNCC's Mississippi field secretary, she became vice chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and received national attention during its attempt to unseat the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Although the party's efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, Hamer riveted television audiences with her testimony. "If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now," she said, "I question America." Fannie Lou Hamer would continue to fight racism and poverty for the rest of her life.